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'The Private Lives of the Tudors' captivates with surprising detail

Historian Tracy Borman's new book challenges our perception of the Tudor era.

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The Private Lives of the Tudors:
Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty
By Tracy Borman
Grove Press
464 pp.

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It's said that clothes make the man. They also make the monarch. No one may have known this better than the Tudors, the most storied family in royal history, who sent a multitude messages to the world and each other through everything from color to codpieces.

Purple silk and "cloth of gold" stood for royal, so much so that only monarchs could wear them, while crimson red screamed of martyrdom. One outfit might proclaim superiority and wealth. Another could silently speak of religious devotion, a bid to spark the king's libido or an aging virgin queen's desperate battle to appear vigorous and young.

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Wardrobes were just one part of the "art of majesty," the product of hundreds of people in a monarchy industrial complex. Designated "rockers" tended royal cradles, servants slept next to the extravagant royal beds, and companions kept kings and queens company as they played and plotted. Meanwhile, the ultra-prestigious groom of the stool ran things behind the scenes and literally assisted the king with his calls of nature.

All these people kept the royals fed and clothed and had a "thousand eyes," as Elizabeth I put it, each one watching her.

"It was vital for a king or queen to show no vulnerability to the outside world ... but their closest attendants knew the truth," writes historian Tracy Borman in The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain's Greatest Dynasty, her fascinating new book about the world of the Tudor clan. And what they knew could be deadly to these ever-endangered royals – misconduct and misery, lies and frailty, all lurking underneath "a mask of invincibility."

Countless books, movies, and TV shows have guaranteed that no royal family is better known than that of Henry VIII, his six wives, "Bloody" Mary, Elizabeth I, and all the rest. Other authors have also ventured to bring us into their most personal moments.

But there's still much to learn from "The Private Lives of the Tudors" thanks to the expertise and persistence of Borman, who serves as a top curator for six British royal palaces.

The details here are immense but rarely overwhelming because they do so much to challenge our perceptions of that time and place. Henry VIII and his court, for example, were actually "the most fastidious of diners," not a Hollywood-style ogres "devouring endless chicken legs and throwing the bones over his shoulder afterward." And everyone ate several thousand calories worth of food a day, not just the chunky king.

Another myth: The bath-averse Tudors weren't as stinky as we might assume, thanks to perfumes and laundresses galore.

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Among other topics, Borman brings readers into the worlds of Tudor-era pregnancy (including endless fussing over intimate signs of fertility), sexuality, and gender roles.

Kings, of course, cavorted with abandon while their wives looked the other way. (Henry VIII used white silk hose to highlight his calves, padded sleeves to show off his broad shoulders, and an "improbably large codpiece" to express an improbably large masculinity.)

But it was women who were believed to be overrun by passion. "While men had the strength of mind to control their appetites," Borman writes, "women were too weak to do so."

Women were supposed to be weak in many other ways too, but two Tudor queens – Mary I and Elizabeth I – landed on the throne. Mary sought a husband to guide her, but Elizabeth refused to marry. As Borman describes it, she toed a line, both confessing to being a "weak and feeble woman" while refusing to act like one. At the same time, she flaunted her femininity, endlessly "beguiling and sexually provocative."

But as she aged, the price she paid for trying to appear young would be high. One longtime male favorite was horrified to see her in private one day without makeup, and he paid a price too.

The most captivating moments of "Private Lives," and there are plenty of them, bring the reader into other personal Tudor moments of strength, weakness, and heartache.

For example, the hair of Henry VII, the father of the famed Henry VIII, turned white after his wife's death. A later ballad achingly described him as having spent "many Months in Moan."

There are snatches of humor in the book too, although the Tudors wouldn't have appreciated the jibe from a Milan duchess touted as yet another wife for Henry VIII: He could have her head, she declared, if she could keep a spare for herself.

She's referring to Henry VIII's habit of executing wives. Some of the Tudor court's ever-watchful "thousand eyes" built the cases against Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I, faced a "string of lurid and scandalous charges," including one that "might seem trivial to modern observers, but ... was damning in the eyes of her contemporaries."

She stood accused of mocking the king's clothes with her brother when "to laugh at his apparel was to laugh at the king himself – a shocking and unforgivable transgression."

As public and private lives collided in Tudor England, the clothes could make the king – and unmake the queen.